Air Layering a Fig Tree Root

Air layering a tree to form roots

Maybe you’re wondering what Air Layering is. When I first heard the words, I pictured wafer cookies with layers of air in them.

Air Layering your fig tree is not too far from that concept. This method allows you to grow roots directly out of a branch into a complete root ball and the process doesn’t provide any nutrients into the roots to extend the size of the branch. Although not recommended, you can cut it down with all the roots intact and plant it into the ground. You’ll have excellent results if you first plant it into a pot afterward and then plant it into the ground the following Spring season. What Air Layering does is encourage the roots to grow in a space that contains a mixture of air pockets, water and the roots layer upon themselves into a tight ball. Air Layering is 100% successful with cloning fig trees unless you wait too late in the season to do it.

The month of June is the best month to begin Air Layering, because when you transplant it into a pot it will have enough time to establish itself before the Fall season comes around. Any existing figs on the branch will continue to grow, but will not taste good when they ripen. I recommend to not attempt to start this in August. I tried it with two trees and they nearly died.

Before we begin, please see photo No. 2 in Rooting Materials. Be sure you have these materials ready along with a pitcher of water and a small bowl. Now, you don’t have to use this same exact bottle, you can experiment with different plastic bottles and different ways to cut them up to fit your branch. The objective is to create a container that will hold damp moss inside of it. Once you’ve created this container, there will be no need to add water to it.

    1. Bowl of moistened (not soaking wet) spagnum moss.
      Bowl of moistened (not soaking wet) spagnum moss.

      Take the bowl and add a handful of the moistened Sphagnum Moss into it.

    2. Using scissors or a box cutting knife, cut the 2-liter bottle (or any other plastic container) similar to what you see in the images below.
    3. Cut the bottle in such a way so that you can slip it onto the branch. I cut a slot at the sides of the bottle spout and then slipped the bottle horizontally over the branch.

      This image contains a different bottle prepared for a smaller branch with a cap for adding water if necessary.

      Small bottle prepared for a smaller branch
      Small bottle prepared for a smaller branch

    4. By following the below instructions, you should have two bottle top ends that should fit together.
    5. Now look for a branch that looks straight
    6. On the branch, you’ll see how the branch appears segmented with bumps that seem to encircle the branch. This is where the roots will grow from.
      Black arrow points to where roots will grow from branch
      Black arrow points to where roots will grow from branch
    7. Once you have located these bumps, fasten one of the bottle sections with electrical tape onto the branch in such a way that the container will encase one of those bumps or knots. Just use your common sense on this step as some branches are pointed in other directions. It might require taping both halves onto the branch and then pushing the moss through a hole on a top with step 9.
    8. Add water to the moss until it’s soaked and then squeeze out all of the water until the moss is just damp. (remove excess water from the bowl).
    9. Pack the damp moss into the bottle half that is on the branch.
    10. Fasten the other bottle segment above the lower one using your tape. Carefully taping the two halves together. If you have extra space for more moss, pack some in before you completely seal off the container. Be careful not to leave holes, otherwise moisture will escape and ants will make a home in the container. Yes, I said ants! Small black ants love it for some reason.
      Horizontal container (difficult construction)
      Horizontal container (difficult construction)
    11. Now mark your calendar and wait 6-8 weeks for the roots to grow. I have found that by week 8 the roots are fully prepared for the transplant into a pot.
      Upside down water bottle cut in half with fig branch protruding it
      Upside down water bottle cut in half with fig branch protruding it
      Air layering close shot showing roots inside upside down water bottle
      Air layering close shot showing roots inside upside down water bottle
    12. Carefully dismantle the plastic container from the root ball.
      Dismantling the container
      Dismantling the container
      Roots freed from containment, ready for pruning shears
      Roots freed from containment, ready for pruning shears
    13. Snip off the new air layered branch below the root ball with pruning shears between two “knots” in the branch. I use this tool because it gives a nice clean cut.
      Showing an example of where to cut the branch with the pruning shears
      Showing an example of where to cut the branch with the pruning shears
    14. Transplant the root ball into a nursery pot that has holes on the bottom. Loosen the roots a little although not necessary and then fill the pot with pre-moistened grow medium. Although pre-moistening is not necessary, I just found it helpful. For this example, I moistened the potting soil with water with another pot. Notice the stick end below the roots as seen in the above photo, I let this end stand directly against the bottom of the pot.
      And finally, transplanting into a pot, filling it with grow medium
      And finally, transplanting into a pot, filling it with grow medium
    15. Water until the grow medium is wet. The water should pass through quickly. To know when to water it again, insert a clean strip of wood into the soil, wait a few minutes and then pull it out. If the wood comes out dry, then add water. Following this method will prevent from rotting the roots.

I have tried Air Layering using other containers. Plastic wrap stuffed with the moss was an option, but birds pecked at it forcing me to wrap it with aluminum foil. Clear containers are the best, because they are “all window” allowing me to see the roots. If you use plastic wrap, it is necessary to add a little bit of water to it at least once a week.

Note

The example container in the photo with the pruning shears in it was the most complex I’ve made. I cut the bottle in half and used the top and bottom segments. the bottom segment required using a hacksaw to cut a slot and drill a large hole in the bottom. What a pain the neck. The bottom of a 2-liter bottle is very thick plastic. It’s not worth the trouble to see someone else struggle with that.

Lost Figs: Where are they?

Lost Figs, where are they?

Changes are that your figs are not in the lost and found at the police station. Knowing when the figs will grow and whether or not they’re being stolen or eaten by natures bugs and other critters is essential to being a backyard gardener.

  • Lost? Maybe the neighborhood kids or your landscapers are sneaking through your yard and eating your figs.
  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll see figs growing on your transplanted tree for the first 2-3 years.
    Lost figs transplanted tree
    Soil Filled Into Hole

    If you see figs, you’re either lucky or the person who supplied a fig tree to you did everything as right as possible to ensure fig production. But there can be margins of error. If you don’t see figs within the first 2-3 years, be patient and hope to see figs the next year. A friend said to me one day that when he doesn’t insulate his fig tree from the winter frost, he doesn’t have figs that year. I only follow this rule for the first year I plant the tree and leave it alone for the following Winter seasons if the tree is at least 5ft tall or the trunk is more than 3 yrs old. I like a thick trunk.

  • If you’ve had your fig trees for a while and you’re just not seeing figs growing, then here are steps to follow to force the tree to grow figs the next year. These steps will not guarantee fig propagation, but it’s a worthy experiment that has worked for me and other people.

Forcing Fig Growth

  • Follow the pruning procedures at item 6 in Outside Living.
  • When the tree begins to grow be sure to cut back any growth that wants to emerge from the base of the trunk.
  • While the new growth begins to emerge from the existing branches, only allow 6 leaves to grow from each branch. Beyond this point, pinch (clip) off the additional growth. This will force the tree to redirect energy from growing limbs to growing figs. Check on the limbs periodically because the tree may start to grow new branches at the base (armpit) of the leaf stems. If so, pinch these off. You’ll scratch your head thinking.. “But figgiriggi said not to prune during growing season.” For this situation, we’re not concerned about that. The pinched ends will dry quickly and then seal themselves off by the following day.
  • Check on the tree for new growth about once every 4 days.
  • Keep an eye out for rounded green bumps. Figs begin to emerge as small ball forms on very short stalks. Baby figs can be confused for leaves, but carefully compare the bumps with how the leaves form. Leaves form almost immediately at the base (armpit) of the leaf stems. Figs also form at the same location. If you’re not sure if you see a fig or not, wait another 4 days and then you’ll know.
  • You’ll have to tend to this for the entire growing season. It gives you an excuse to observe your tree when the neighbors see you out in the yard, otherwise they might think you’ve lost your mind.

If you give up, hopefully you won’t. Go to a nursery and buy a new fig tree.

Transplanting

The Thing with Two Heads

movie poster
movie poster

No, this isn’t the art of making a two-headed freak as in the movie classic, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant / The Thing with Two Heads (Midnite Movies Double Feature). This is about transplanting the fig tree from a pot into the ground.

When your fig tree is coming out of Winter storage around the end of March (around the latitude of NJ), observe the tips of the branches. You’ll notice that they stayed green all Winter season. There is an indicator that tells you when it’s time to plant your fig tree outside. This is when leaves begin to break out from those green tips or just before. This is the ideal time to plant the tree and minimizes shock to the leaves.

Here are some basic instructions on transplanting:

  1. When a fig tree grows, it has roots that love to travel along the surface of the soil just under your grass and in fact, can raid flower beds. So, don’t grow it where it will damage other plants, unless you understand this risk and like things grown together.
  2. If your climate is not 100% suitable for growing out in the yard, you may choose to grow it next to your house. The house gives off enough heat radiation to warm the tree.
  3. Once you’ve chosen the ideal spot 12-20 feet away from other fig trees, soak the area well with water if it hasn’t rained lately. This holds up the soil while you’re digging and attracts the roots when they’re growing out.
    Setting the distance
    Setting the distance

    Dig the hole

  4. Dig a hole using this general guideline: 12 inches wide for every 1 inch width of tree trunk. The depth should be the same depth of your root ball plus an additional 4 inches. In the photo examples, the trunk was only about 1/2″ in diameter. I made the hole 12″ in diameter, although I could certainly have made it 6″ (use your best judgement). My brother Joe asked me what is root ball and if it was a disease you can catch. NO! You won’t catch “root ball” nor will you get “root balls”.
    cutting the sod with edging shovel
    Cutting a circle to the depth of grass roots with a shovel
    Removing the sod
    Removing the sod

    Start Digging

    Digging hole with spade shovel
    Digging hole with spade shovel
    Setting the depth
    Setting the depth

     

  5. To remove the tree from the pot, carefully hold the fig tree by the base of the trunk. Tilt it over and hit the sides and bottom of the nursery pot with your hand to loosen the soil inside.
    pounding the pot
    Hitting the sides and bottom of the pot with my hand.
  6. Remove the root ball from the pot.

    loosening the roots
    Loosening grow medium from around the roots
  7. Place it into the hole you just dug and loosen the soil around the roots.
  8. Add potting soil around the root ball and then fill in the rest to top it off at the top. The soil will compress when it’s watered. I use potting soil rather than the dirt that I dug up. The reason is that it’s sterile, full of nutrients and has added fertilizer. In this example, I purchased FoxFarm FX14023 Light Warrior Seed Starter Soilless Mix, 1-Cubic Feet (not av… because it has natural fertilizers that I like and I think you will like it too.

    →If the tree is falling over, drive a stake into the ground next to it and then tie it to the tree. I reach for an old cotton rag or towel and then cut 1 inch strips of fabric off of it to use for tying the the stake to the tree. Over time, the fabric degrades and falls off. I like the fabric because it’s soft and doesn’t scratch the tree.

    FoxFarm organic potting soil
    The organic potting soil I used
    transplanting tree into soil
    Soil Filled Into Hole
  9. Now that the tree is planted, add mulch. It doesn’t matter what kind of mulch. I like to use Mighty 109 Natural Cedar Mulch. Be sure to mold it into a bowl shape or like building a bird’s nest around the tree with your hands. It will funnel the water toward the roots.

    →I only use mulch for the first year I plant the tree. The following year I just apply a fresh layer of soil and leave it alone.

    Shaping the mulch
    Shaping the mulch
  10. Now water the tree. I gave the tree a thorough soaking by placing a hose there and letting a trickle of water run for an hour. Don’t soak it like this every time you water it thereafter, otherwise the roots could rot.

You’re Done!

Outside Living

Growing outside is low maintenance

Fig tree on a mid-Summer morning
Fig tree on a mid-Summer morning

When you grow your fig tree outside, all you have to do is plant it and let it grow. Here are some suggestions to consider.

Watering

Watering trees outside as often as possible depends on your weather conditions. At least once every 3 days. If you have a lot of rain, your tree may grow at a rate of about 2-3 ft per season (without fertilizer). Mine grew 4 ft during the first year I planted it.

Training

Train your tree to grow outside with one base trunk (not like what you see in the photo above) by clipping off additional branches that grow from the base. See these Training tips. For pruning tips, scroll down to item number 6 on this page.

No Pesticides

I suggest that you not add pesticides outside if you can help it. Once figs begin to grow in the middle of June, they stay on the tree throughout the entire growing season until they become plump and juicy. Pesticides are poisonous because they’ll absorb into the figs and then bitten revealing a terrible cocktail. Peeling the skin off does not provide protection against consuming the chemicals.

Winterizing

Studies suggest following this step when trees grow up to 3 years or less than 5ft tall.

When the Fall season approaches after the figs have a harvest and all the leaves have fallen off, prepare the tree for Winterizing. To prepare, gardeners can insulate by surrounding the tree outside with garden stakes and either wrapping that with chicken wire then fill the interior space with leaves from other trees, wrap Frost King SP57/11C Water Heater Blanket, 3in Thick x 48in Tall x 75in Long, R10 around the stakes and then encase that with a TopSoon Plastic Mattress Bag for King / Queen, Size 78″ x 96″.

Styrofoam box encasing a fig tree and held together with wire.
Styrofoam box encasing a fig tree and held together with wire.

 

You may encase the fig tree in sheets of thick DOW Craft Styrofoam Foam Sheets, 2 x 24 x 48, (2 sheets) and then covering with plastic.

 

Fig tree insulated with water heater insulation and clear mattress bag.
Fig tree insulated with water heater insulation and clear mattress bag.

 

Wrapping with water heater insulation: use duct tape to wrap the plastic tight. Do not let any of this plastic touch the branches. I like water heater insulation because it does an excellent job with warming the tree and the exterior plastic keeps the fiberglass from spoiling. Insulation in good condition following the winter, reuse it next time. This insulation prevents the branches from freezing. You may also dig up the tree, lay it on its side on the ground, cover with burlap and dirt. But I don’t recommend it. I know all too well what happens when no insulation covering around the tree. Most of the time, the tree dies back and essentially has to start all over again with its growth if it doesn’t die entirely.

 

Note:

I’ve found that if the branches are a minimum 1/2 inch thick on a 3 yr old thick trunk, those branches will survive the Winter frost when you do not winterize the tree.

Pruning

Pruning timetables are set from February thru March. Spring arrives by April, but if the temperatures return to freezing wrap it back up. Between March and May, green growth should appear and all insulation separating even if outside temperatures reach upper 30s to mid 40s. Why bother pruning it when it looks fine the way it is? Your other question might be, why prune in February or March? After all those harsh cold months, the sap has fallen deep into the tree. Pruning it at this point will give you a clean-cut without sweet sap oozing out. Pruning causes it to grow more branches and therefore more figs. Once the form of the tree has been reached after the initial years of pruning, then there is no need for heavy Winter pruning.

How do you prune it? Look at the branches and you’ll notice bumps where new branches emerge from. Now look at the entire tree. Picture the shape of the tree in your head and remove only 1/3 of the tree from the top. Cut just above those bumps on the branches. If you’re cutting back an entire branch, cut it back only to about 2 inches away from the main branch or trunk.

During growing season let the tree grow and don’t prune the branches. Pruning during the growing season causes the sweet white sap or latex to ooze out of the branch. Sap attracts insects and all sorts of fungus that may rot the tree.

Suggestion:

Clear away branches in the center to allow sunlight to reach the entire tree when it grows. OK, now it looks like you are killing your tree. Don’t worry, it’s still alive.

Whitewashing

White wash on winter damaged wood
White wash on winter damaged wood. For pruning, just apply the white wash in the cut area. Wipe away excess with damp cloth.

Whitewashing is important for the cut the ends of the tree to prevent a hole from developing too soon at the center (branches have a soft center where the milky sap flows) of the branch, which can provide a haven for fungus and insects once dried. To white wash, mix 50/50 of water and Rust-Oleum 1990730 Painters Touch Latex, 1/2-Pint, Flat White paint and dab it on with these Plaid Foam Brushes, 44269 (3 Pack). I sometimes use white wash on wood that has the potential for winter weather damage or any other damage to the wood.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Fertilization

When To Apply Outside: Regular fertilizing usually applies to potted fig trees and when grown in sandy or clay soils. Readers usually purchase inexpensive soil pH testers without questioning on whether or not fig trees need fertilizer. Scientists say that the pH should read between 5.0 to 5.5 for potted trees and 6.0 to 6.5 for trees grown in the ground. I use a MoonCity 3-in-1 Soil Tester Kits, Soil Meter for Moisture, Light and pH / acidity Meter Plant Tester,Good for Gardener or Planter Both Indoor and Outdoors (No Battery needed). An example of this meter I like it because it comes with a convenient chart/guide on the back of the package.

Note:

Nitrogen fertilizers encourage foliage growth, but the fruit often ripens terribly, if at all. Fertilizer should only be used if the tree grew less than 1 foot the previous year. Application should be broken into 3-4 applications starting between March and May, then ending in July. To read more on this topic, see this Fig Fruit Facts website.

3-Way Soil Meter
3-Way Soil Meter

Natural Fertilizer

Depending on where people live in the Northeastern climates, their outside trees may begin to show leaves anywhere between April 1st to May 1st and then the cycle begins all over again. Gardeners are suggested to not add mulch to the tree at this point. Mulch can actually rot the base of your established fig tree after the first year of growth. Fig trees love water, but they also like well-drained soil otherwise they can rot. Readers have chosen The Dirty Gardener Dolomite Limestone – 2 Pounds chips when fertilizing. Some people claim that outside fig trees LOVE limestone for it’s slow release properties.

Researchers have no solid evidence that fig trees need excessive amounts of Ca or Mg. With that said, as mentioned above under the Fertilization topic, fig trees prefer a pH of 6.0-6.5 when planted in a mineral soil in your yard and 5.0-5.5 when in a pot. If your soil is very acidic, then you can buy the bag of dolomite lime mentioned above and sprinkle it around the base of the tree. Most of the time, there is no need to add limestone to the soil if it was from a potting mix or if you’ve added it when making a pine bark/peat based medium. Store purchased potting mixes are generally pre-limed with dolomite to a pH of 6.2. If you determined that your soil needs fertilizer, be sure to water the tree afterward to allow the nutrients to reach the roots.

Drought Conditions

During a dry spell or Summer drought conditions, water the tree outside everyday. If your town has restricted lawn watering use. Just use a Union Products 63065 Watering Can, 2 gal, Hunter Green and give the tree some water.

Potted Fig Trees

Potted Fig Tree
Potted Fig Tree

General Care For Potted Fig Trees

Potted fig trees need certain requirements in order to grow successfully. Consider the following tips.

Pot Type

Choose a pot with a manageable size with holes on the bottom. The one I provide is a nursery pot, which means it’s the black flimsy kind that has large holes on the bottom (the kind that comes with a new bush from the plant store) and it doesn’t allow much root growth. Include a tray to fit under your pot to collect excess water.

Soil Type

Use soil that doesn’t retain water for long periods, so regular potting soil is not good. Reason? if it remains moist for a long time, it can promote root rot.

Another name of the soil I use is called grow medium. I used to get my soil from a hydroponics store in NJ that later went out of business, so I had to make my own grow medium. It is loose and allows the water to pass directly to the roots and then out the bottom. This grow medium is organic and contains pine bark, humus (organic compost) as the main fertilizer, and perlite. You don’t have to use this type of soil. An alternative recommendation is vermiculite mixed into it to loosen the soil. You can also buy The Dirty Gardener Dolomite Limestone – 2 Pounds and add it on top of the soil, especially if squirrels are digging around.

Fig trees LOVE limestone for it’s slow release properties. Readers recommend that you use a soil pH tester like the one mentioned in item number 6 of Outside Living.

Growing Season

Let the potted tree grow and water often. Don’t prune it because the sap is sweet. It attracts flies, other insects and fungus. However, if branches grow up from the bottom of the trunk, clip them off. The objective is to train it to grow with one trunk. There is a substance that you can get for sealing off the wood when you prune during the growing season, but I’ve never used it before.

Winterizing

In the Fall, the leaves will naturally fall off. Once they have fallen, move the potted tree into a cool dark place to store over the winter. Following this step ensures a good fig harvest the next season. If you store the tree in a warm dark place, it might not grow figs next year. I used an attached garage because it remained cold, but not freezing.

Pruning

At the start of the month of March, prune the branches back to a manageable size. By this time, the sap has fallen to the base of the tree. Rule of thumb, only prune a maximum of 1/3 of the tree. Pruning will also allow the tree to grow even more figs the next season.

Winter Watering

During the winter, give the potted tree about a cup of water once a month to keep it alive.

Springtime

As soon as you see leaves begin to emerge from the branches, move it outside and then give it water (just enough until you see water run out the bottom). A great way to test it to see if it has enough moisture is to take a dry stick (I use a short wooden skewer) and slip it as deep as you can into the soil for a few minutes. Pull it out and if the stick is dry, add water. It’s sort of like checking the oil in your car engine with the dip stick. Your tree is like a fig producing engine.

Maintenance

Once every 2-3 years, prune the roots. If you use a humus-based medium, you will also need to change the soil otherwise the roots will use up all the space and nutrients in the pot. If you used the conifer bark-based grow medium mix that I’ve mentioned in this blog, then you can wait until the next time you prune the roots to change the soil. Apartment residents can do this in the bathtub (or shower). Just line the inside of the tub with a plastic drop cloth. If the plastic keeps falling down at the sides, just tape it against the tiles.

City dwellers can give the soil back to the Earth by discarding it in your nearby park or communal garden. Of course, you can send it to the trash as well. Then the soil goes to a landfill and doesn’t hurt the trash there. Click here for photographic instructions on pruning your roots.

General Care

General Care for your fig tree

General Care: How to know if your environment is suitable for growing a fig tree? Before you decide, check to see if you can get a minimum of 6 hrs sunlight for your tree. Once you’ve confirmed this, get a fig tree! Although it’s not so simple. Find out which USDA zone you are in and then determine which variety will grow in your climate.

There are times when you just want to simply know how to take care of your fig tree. Your tree is either grown from a pot or outside.

How you grow it depends on your climate. If you live in an environment where the temperatures reach extreme cold conditions in the Winter season such as in New Hampshire, upper portions of upstate New York or even in Canada. In this case, you should consider growing your tree in a pot. Growing it in a pot means that you take it indoors to a cool dark room during the cold Winter months while the tree sits dormant like a grizzly bear sleeping in its den. For warmer climates such as in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania or Maryland you can certainly transplant your tree out in your yard. For further instructions, look under Potted Fig Trees and Outside Living.

The 200-hour freeze zone, brr…

In the 200-hour freeze zone, figs will grow once for the entire season and harvest time is around September. Brown Turkey figs are ripe when they turn a purple color. Also, when ripe, they are soft to the touch and you can pop them off of the branch with little effort. Try one and then you can judge with your mouth on whether it’s ripe enough. Eating too many figs can behave like a laxative. Another way to tell when to pick is when the fig begins to form slight cracks in the skin. Read Harvesting Figs for more info.

    • When you prune, you can save a 6 – 12 inch cutting and then grow a new fig tree. There are different ways to grow roots from cuttings or branches. See Rooting for more info.
      general care: cutting
      Tall cutting

 

WARNING:

Under-watering, can cause the figs to shrivel up and fall off. Also, Stink Bugs and some birds love to eat figs. Gophers love to eat fig tree roots.

Figs (ficus)

figs
Juicy ripe brown turkey figs

Fig Fact: Did you know that these are not only fruit, but also flowers? How can this be?

Some of these trees are self-pollinating and others require a very tiny wasp. It enters through a little hole (the mouth) at the end of the fruit. The Brown Turkey fig, which is featured in this blog is self-pollinating so you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to eat a tiny insect inside of it.

The fruit actually encases hundreds of flowers deep within it’s core. This is why this fruit appears to be slightly hollow in the center.

See this website link for additional knowledge on this topic: Pollination of this delicious fruit

Some fig varieties have a special relationship to a specific non-stinging wasp species. This is how the relationships between figs and insects have evolved to live in harmony. At the bottom end of the fig, you can find a hole called a mouth. The fig wasp is a very tiny insect that pollinates the fig. It crawls in to mate with a male and then lay eggs, while it’s doing that it is able to push pollen deep into the fig to reach tiny flowers and their stamen. This is the way it can fertilize it’s seeds. I have yet to witness a ficus wasp and I’ve been harvesting figs for several years. Usually if one of these wasps have laid it’s eggs, the fruit will shrivel and fall to the ground very quickly.

Be sure to remove them from around your tree to help prevent fungus and insects from attacking your healthy figs.

Figs are very safe to eat, but like any fruit you pick from the garden, observe it carefully before you eat it. If you click on the link above, you’ll notice one of these species of wasp mentioned in the USDA Forest Service article.